There’s a poetic, ruminating quality about it The power of the dog. This film is an adaptation of the Thomas Savage novel by Kiwi filmmaker Jane Campion, who is returning to cinema after a 12-year hiatus. With a few exceptions, the genre was mostly about bravado, duels, the retreating world of bandits and gunslingers, and the taming of the Old West. The Power of the Dog is a film that uses its setting, the boundary between the Wild West and the civilized world, to notice the nature of masculinity.
It’s Montana from 1925. Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) are two wealthy farmers. While Phil is dominant and puts his trust in manual labor, George has more urban sensibilities and is softer, kinder.
While visiting a nearby inn, they meet its lady owner, Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), a widow, and her lanky, effeminate teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil makes fun of Peter’s paper flowers for finding the art too feminine, and mocks his lisp.
George, on the other hand, comforts a crying Rose after Phil leaves. They fall in love and get married.
Phil Burbank finds a kindred soul in Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). (Photo: Netflix)
Phil, assuming the worst of everyone, decides that Rose has ensnared his brother for his wealth. He taunts and belittles her at every opportunity, making her miserable. Rose, unaccustomed to such cruelty, turns to drink.
Peter, a medical and surgery student, arrives at the ranch for summer vacation. Initially, Phil finds easy, docile prey in him, but suddenly begins to show him kindness. He finds a kindred soul in someone he’d judged a “sissy.”
Peter also proves that he is not a go-getter. The dynamic between the two is the essence of the film, and it’s so captivating that everything else fades to irrelevance for a while.
The Power of the Dog seems to be one thing at first and eventually turns into something else. There’s no major twist here, just vague allusions, and as a surprisingly strong drink, the film hits your head like a jackhammer.
Ari Wegner’s cinematography gives several stunning shots of expansive landscapes, as well as pauses to linger with faces, giving them more depth than words ever could. The Otago region of New Zealand serves perfectly as rural 1920s Montana.
Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s music complements the visuals and fits the elegiac, haunting feel of the story.
Kirsten Dunst’s Rose Gordon has no defense mechanism against Phil’s bullying and consoles herself with alcohol. (Photo: Netflix)
The performances in The Power of the Dog are all fantastic. Cumberbatch is the clear MVP here, although Dunst and Smit-McPhee come close. Critics can often be hyperbolic and the phrase “Oscar-worthy” gets thrown around a lot this time of year. But in the case of this movie, it doesn’t feel overdone. This is a versatile, remarkably subtle, once-in-a-lifetime achievement.
The solid but sparse writing (also from Campion), at least in terms of actual dialogue, goes a long way in creating powerful characters. In lesser hands Phil would have been cartoonishly bad. A rambunctious, brash ranch owner, used to bullying everyone he knows, viewing kindness as a weakness, but with Campion at the helm, he seems all too human.
Fiery, charismatic but cruel to others, Cumberbatch’s deep-set eyes cast a languorous glance when alone; shedding the laddish look to give a glimpse of his unfathomable psyche. These moments, however short-lived, give the character a sense of vulnerability.
We are told that he and George had a mentor named Bronco Henry, and at least to Phil he is an object of reverence, less of a man and more of a deity, even a religion. He has a sacred shrine to him, with his cowboy outfits arranged like idols. There’s more going on here, on a much deeper level, but that might count as a spoiler.
However, this film is hard to spoil. For it is not just a series of events, but an experience that will mean different things to different people. Like any fine work of art, The Power of the Dog is open to interpretation.
The Power of the Dog is a nuanced exploration of toxic masculinity that skillfully undermines expectations; a rare masterpiece.
Film director The Power of the Dog: Jane Campion
The cast of the movie Power of the Dog: Benedict CumberbatchKirsten DunstJesse PlemonsKodi Smit-McPhee
The Power of the Dog movie review: 5 stars